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How do you make interesting ideas and views stick with you?
January 5, 2011 6:56 AM   Subscribe

You're probably all familiar with this: you spend a couple of hours burning through pile of Google Reader/Read It Later/Instapaper items, and everything seems to clear and informational and your attention level is high and you get all those great ideas and... and it stays in your head for two days. Do you know any good tools or habits I can use to improve retention of what I read? Do you keep a journal? Make notes? Write down short abstracts of more interesting articles? Periodically re-read some stuff?

This morning I spent three hours reading huge pile of science articles from 2010 and posts from ever-awesome, thought-inducing lesswrong and like always after such a binge I have a problem: how am I actually going to translate all this wisdom into my everyday life instead of just forgetting it the very next day?
And I'm not talking about remembering some very particular pieces of information but generally keeping hold of interesting ideasWhen I read something very fact-heavy I could always use SRS and cut out particularly interesting info. But in this case we're talking about much more general food for thought like reading new Edge, NYT articles, lesswrong etc.

Are you even familiar with what am I talking about? Or am I being such a damn perfectionist and should just let it go and accept that you are supposed to forget 90% of stuff that you read.

Background info: I read books *a lot* and I'm pretty good at retention etc. (I guess that's because in books you don't jump from topic to topic every fifteen minutes) So lack of attention isn't a problem. But with books I just know how to take notes and they usually are longer than 15 minutes so ideas have time to stick with you.

Reason it makes me sad panda so much is that most of stuff that I read I find really interesting and it gives me a lot of creative and uncommon views on my life. But they just don't seem to stay with me for as long as I'd hope for (which is longer than three days).

(sorry for any mistakes in text, English isn't my first language)
posted by desultory_banyan to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
Keep a notebook, use it to keep notes of a few lines or less, reread what you've written regularly. Buy a new one as needed.

Alternatively, keep a text file on your desktop, add a note to the top line each time you need to, reread regularly, save to "ideas" folder at end of month, then start a new one.
posted by Ahab at 7:07 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

In Google Reader maybe make a tag, something like "save" or "gobackto" or something and then just go back a read that stuff once in a while.
posted by Blake at 7:11 AM on January 5, 2011

Are you even familiar with what am I talking about?


Or am I being such a damn perfectionist and should just let it go and accept that you are supposed to forget 90% of stuff that you read.


Here's what I did and what I recommend. Start a blog using Blogger, Wordpress, Posterous, or Tumblr. When there's an article you're interested in, link to it with a very concise description in your headline (a few words) and your text that links to the article (one sentence). You might want to then give a longer block quote that gets to the essence of the article's point or that has especially memorable language (e.g. a vivid metaphor). Then say a little something in your own words to give your reaction. (Do you agree with the article? Is it leaving out an important perspective? Can you think of a better solution to the problem at hand than the one the author proposes? etc.) The blog can be public or private (and even if it's public, you don't need to publicize it).

I started blogging because, like you, I like taking notes on books (actually, I take notes in books; I write in the margins). I wanted to be able to do this with online articles. Blogging is the way to do that. (You can apply it to books too, if you're willing to type up passages from books in blog posts; this is also a memory aid.)
posted by John Cohen at 7:12 AM on January 5, 2011 [8 favorites]

Same idea as a notebook, but digital. Most of the time I am reading a huge pile or articles there's a common thread, so I make a short writeup of the highlights. At the end of each paper I attach a physical sticky note with a summary of the neat bits to the front and synthesize at the end. You can do the same thing in zotero, which I use more and more, as long as you have a tag to keep track of the recent papers.

I participate in weekly meetings about research topics with several groups; most of them have an "awesome fact / paper" section at the beginning of each meeting. My favorite calls this the "science bomb" and people tend to remember them.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:12 AM on January 5, 2011

Or am I being such a damn perfectionist and should just let it go and accept that you are supposed to forget 90% of stuff that you read.


Especially in the age of the internet, with thousands of news sites and blogs on very topic known to man.. you have to forget old information to learn new information.

Have you considered starting your own blog? It doesn't have to be public. There you could write down your ideas, link back to the articles they come from and stick them in categories with tags for a digital version of your memory.
posted by royalsong at 7:13 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh I am SO familiar with this feeling!

Can you draw wee diagrams or mind-maps highlighting the main points while you're reading, and maybe have a quick revision when you're done? You don't necessarily even have to keep them for future reference; I find even the act of writing something down, or sketching it, helps solidify it in my memory. Especially for science-y articles. (For example: I don't know the exact details for finding the fastest point of sail, but I can remember the diagram I drew where I labelled all the forces, and I have a decent general idea of how sailing works.)

The other thing I do when I need to get a concept locked into my brain is to try to explain it to someone who is completely unfamiliar with the subject matter, which helps highlight any gaping holes in my recall. Do you have a friend who'd like to hear all about that interesting thing you just saw in you Reader?
posted by jaynewould at 7:15 AM on January 5, 2011

and, since I never preview.. pretty much what John Cohen said.
posted by royalsong at 7:16 AM on January 5, 2011

Or, hey, what everyone else said while I was typing.
posted by jaynewould at 7:17 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

how am I actually going to translate all this wisdom into my everyday life

Remembering ideas is not the same thing as implementing them in your life.

To get something that you read about once to be a useful part of your everyday toolkit, you need to apply it often, and keep doing that for an extended period. Even then you'll eventually forget a lot of it if you stop using it for a long time.

That means it's not practical to absorb every passing thing that you read in such a way that it's always at your fingertips. But if there is something that is really important to you, you can make it one of your to-dos to find opportunities to use it every day, and do that for long enough that it becomes somewhat of a habit.
posted by philipy at 7:20 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

There is science about this. What I do and why :

Test myself. Shown to improve recall. I use flash cards with major concepts and new vocabulary. I rewrite ideas in my own words if possible.

Read smaller chunks more frequently. Preview, 5 min break, read actively 15 mins (underline, try to identify main points ). Preview next chunk, 5 mins. Break foe 5 minutes. Review last chunk 5 minutes, read 10 minutes, preview next chunk 5 minutes.

Takes advantage of primacy and recency effects. You see all the material at least 3 times. You can only really focus for about 20 minutes at a time.

Study the same material in different locations. Shown to improve retention.

Wish I had cites but I'm on my phone.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:29 AM on January 5, 2011

My wife uses the text-document-on-the-desktop method to remember things found online, and she copies-and-pastes things into it all day with little notes. The days she forgets to hit save and has a computer crash, well, those are sad days.

I am researching a book and (and I feel like this is my extra-secret-secret and shouldn't tell anyone) I have a standalone install of Wikimedia on a server I can only access. Its entire purpose is collecting notes. I'm a fan of Wiki's ability to cross-reference, and the simplified non-HTML for easy markup (lots of bullet lists) -- my focus is on the data, so if I paste a bare URL, it becomes a link; if I change a name on something, pages redirect; uploading files, whether image or PDF or text, is simple. Plus -- it does versioning, so if I mess something up I can look back at my edit history.

But, as others said, learning means a lot of stuff falls through the seive; just look at what you learned the first five or six years of school, and how much of it you really retained. Learning isn't just capturing info, but also using it; language and writing are the way humans have figured out how to get around the loss of disused info.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:37 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yet again, I'll suggest Evernote.

I use this constantly, even for stuff I'm never going to turn into a blog post or an article -- just for taking notes on "original" ideas I might have when reading other stuff. You may find yourself overwhelmed with tagged articles but at least you'll have a system for tagging that you can go back for later and be slightly less frustrated.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:42 AM on January 5, 2011

I'm an information guzzler. Before the iPhone, before the public Internet, I would reread the back of a cereal box if it was the only thing handy at breakfast.

A few things I've learned.

1. There is a strong impulse in people to go to great lengths to hoard that which is free, plentiful, and somehow perceived as valuable. People spend a lot of time perfecting their accumulation of bootlegged music and movies. They spend hundreds of dollars on huge hard disks. And yet, in the end, the limiting factor is the time and attention they have to devote to consuming what they've accumulated. I see the same with web pages. People have hundreds of tabs open, thousands of bookmarks, etc...

Face reality, if it is all important, then none of it is important. You can let some of it go.

2. For the stuff that is worth saving, settle on some tool that works for you right now that makes it easy to keep track of links and snippets, and make notes about them. It could be a wordpress blog, with it's bookmarklet, or tumble, or Evernote. Don't waste a lot of time worrying about a solution that is future proof, because the truth is, for most of the stuff, you probably ain't going to need it in the future. Still, whatever you use, you should feel like it will be easy to get something back out of it a month later, otherwise you won't use it.

3. For the stuff that seems most important, write something about it. For stuff that seems more important, write more about it. In doing so, try and create associations with other information and ideas you've noted, or you have in your head. Memory seems to be very associative so you'll have a better chance of remembering something when you need it if you have given thought to when you might need it when you come across it. Further, you'll have better chances of remembering it if you associate it with more things.

4. Repetition helps with memory. Give yourself time to skim back over the things you've saved in the past week, month or day. Dig into the subjects that interest you most at any given time.

You talk about wanting to remember things that serve as food for thought. The most important thing to remember is that food is for eating; if you gather things to think about, don't spend so much time and energy on the gathering that you cant indulge yourself in the time to think about them.
posted by Good Brain at 9:40 AM on January 5, 2011 [12 favorites]

This is a big part of why I use Delicious/ When I read something interesting online, I carefully bookmark it with a descriptive title, accurate tags, and a quote or couple sentences that summarize the point of the page (or why I found it worthwhile — what I learned from it). This takes some time and effort, but it gets easier with practice, and it means that the pages stick in my head better and that they're easy to review and find again.
posted by dreamyshade at 10:08 AM on January 5, 2011

Engaging and interacting with the text in an active way is the best way to improve retention, that is: anything other than just passively reading. Though blogging or some form of digital notes are superior than just simply reading, they aren't as ideal as handwritten notes are in helping with retention.

My suggestion is to take handwritten notes, and scan them whenever you fill up a page. That way you get the benefit of better retention, as well as the security of owning a digital copy of your notes that can then be put online into some form of cloud computing service so that even if you lose your laptop or hard drive, the notes are still there.
posted by SollosQ at 11:39 AM on January 5, 2011

Some of these I've already tried, some of these I know will not work (at least for my problem, but as always YMMV), some of these I definitely got to try:

1) tried: doodling/drawing (perfect for TED talks, lectures etc. doesn't work too good when reading), repetition/"test yourself" (mnemosyne works great, but mostly with text where there's factual information that you can divide into very small bites), Evernote/txt files (simple copy-paste of really interesting paragraphs... well, it works, but most of time I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with this :D)

2) will not work: tagging & saving stuff - I do this constantly, but this doesn't have anything to do with my problem; I just keep huge bookmarks folder of Internet articles with proper tags for future reference;

3) I want to try: blogging - creating own Wikia* sounds a bit too serious for my purposes, but I think I'll reactivate my Wordpress (I've registered an account for exactly this purpose but then gave up on this idea) and try to do something in Arts&Letters Daily fashion - just paste favourite articles from around the Web with short (well, maybe not A&LD short, but one paragraph should suffice). I think I'll keep it private for some time.

*hey, it reminds me of this awesome story (which I was able to find because I've got it saved and tagged in my bookmarks, BTW ;]) - you might want to ctrl+F and paste "My uncle does most of his reading on that screen."

Remembering ideas is not the same thing as implementing them in your life.
Sure, I do realize all this. But some stuff that I read *is* something I'd like to implement, yet it isn't something you encounter everyday. But, say you read a blog post about anchoring or about how Africa aid doesn't work that well or why tall people are not to be trusted** - it's really a useful piece of information, yet one that you can't just incorporate into your daily routine or develop into habit, it's just something you want to remember and be aware of.

(please, please forgive me if this post is too MetaTalk, I'm new in here ;])

posted by desultory_banyan at 2:54 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Since you mentioned that English is not your first language, you might try doing a little Google-fu into the concept of a "commonplace book." Here are a couple of sites to get you started. You can then take that old concept and try some more modern methods of doing something similar electronically.
posted by webhund at 9:03 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

yet it isn't something you encounter everyday

The point is, if you actually want to start giving a damn about, say, African aid (in practice rather than as some info you have stuffed in the recesses of your brain) you need to make it something that you engage with frequently for an extended period.

If you don't automatically encounter it everyday, you'll need to go out of your way to create occasions where you will. Or alternately accept that this is something you're ok with mostly forgetting about.

We don't get kids to read a chapter on calculus and then just hope they'll come across occasions in their everyday life to use it. If you want them to actually be able to do calculus and have it available as a tool, you'll make sure they get to practice it hundreds of times in the days after they learn it.

Btw, an eye-catching article you find on the web isn't often going to the full story about something complex like aid effectiveness. And as a fan of lesswrong, you'll know that as a human being you are prone to noticing stuff that confirms what you want to believe, or stuff that sounds dramatic, and end up remembering a pretty distorted picture of what you read, which itself might be simplistic or biased.

There's nothing you can do about that short of engaging deeply with the subject, actively seeking out alternative evidence etc.

So as Good Brain said, focus on those few things that matter most to you, make sure to put time into them, and archive the rest.

Personally I've taken to Pinboard for archiving and the full-text search is pretty reassuring regarding whether I'll be able to find info again if I ever need it, based on what vague things I can remember.
posted by philipy at 6:51 AM on January 6, 2011

Somehow you've got to really learn the stuff when you read it. I do what you do (read 10 fascinating articles and forget them all) but if you look into advanced memorization techniques: pegging and chaining, etc. and practice them, you'll be able to really remember what you want to remember. For example, memorize a list of the ~10 points you want to remember from an artice, and make mental links between the first item in the list and the tasks in your life you associate with it. Check out Memorization on Wikipedia.

Also, the Dilbert author says there's no such thing as willpower, meaning that you'll do what you most want to do at any moment, so "willpower" to change your life is really just "imagining future consequences."
posted by sninctown at 11:03 AM on January 7, 2011

Instapaper can be sent to a Kindle, and Kindle can highlight, and Amazon stores all of those highlight for you online. That is awesome
posted by jasondigitized at 1:17 PM on January 8, 2011

Someone out there uses the equivalent of SuperMemo to store key parts of scholarly articles for later review.

There are many apps that use the Supermemo algorithm. Here is one for the iPad: There are others that use (spaced repetition?) so feel free to shop around.

Ah, here is the original ask.mefi thread:

Here is Gary Wolf's background article on the original software, Supermemo.

As a student at the Poznan University of Technology in western Poland in the 1980s, Wozniak was overwhelmed by the sheer number of things he was expected to learn. But that wasn't his most troubling problem. He wasn't just trying to pass his exams; he was trying to learn. He couldn't help noticing that within a few months of completing a class, only a fraction of the knowledge he had so painfully acquired remained in his mind. Wozniak knew nothing of the spacing effect, but he knew that the methods at hand didn't work.
posted by mecran01 at 3:19 PM on September 30, 2011

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